A history mystery in Mullica Hill

Resident continues search for proof of fatal plane crash on Main Street during World War II

Mullica Hill resident Jim Adkins believes this part of Main Street in Mullica Hill may have been the site of a historic plane crash during World War II, even though the U.S. Army has no record of the incident.

During the 1940s and ‘50s, Mullica Hill was the site of multiple military aircraft crashes.

Newspaper archives and declassified U.S. Army documents hold details of those accidents,  some of which took place while the United States was fighting in World War II.

But longtime Mullica Hill resident James Adkins believes there is one plane crash missing from the historical record. In 1992, he was told by longtime resident George “Duke” Allen about an Army airplane that allegedly crashed on Main Street in Mullica Hill sometime during World War II.

According to the story, the crash took place at the current location of the traffic light at Main Street and Mullica Road. Residents at the time were said to have helped Army personnel clean up the area and retrieve the body of the pilot, who died in the crash. Just before the Army officers left, the story goes, residents were told to never speak about what happened.

Allen died less than a year after telling Adkins the story. Ever since, the tale has lived in Adkins’ mind, and he’s made it his mission to uncover more about it.  But that search has led to one dead end after another. The Army has no record of a plane crashing on Main Street in Mullica Hill during World War II. Local historical societies have also been unable to verify the story. There is no physical proof the crash ever took place, but Adkins firmly believes Allen’s story is true.

“This wasn’t a (made-up) story,” Adkins said emphatically. “I dismiss that idea from my knowledge of Duke. He was not going to tell me a tale. He’s telling me the truth. He told me something he witnessed. As I review that and I see him in my mind, I am absolutely, 100 percent certain he told me the truth.

“That is a true story. And I’m sticking it to it.”

 

Duke’s story

It’s been nearly 30 years since Allen told Adkins the story about the crash, but the details are still fresh in his mind. The two were friends and neighbors living on Cohawkin Road in Mullica Hill. It was normal for them to lean on the chain link fence separating their homes and talk. It was during one of those conversations that Allen, accompanied by his best friend, Herb Ballinger, asked Adkins if he remembered the day an Army aircraft crashed on Main Street.

Now 67, Adkins was not alive during that time and said so to Allen. That’s when Allen began to tell him the story.

“One day, (Allen) was trying to repair a tractor in a field that was across the street from Marshall’s Towing,” Adkins said. “He’s working on this tractor and once in a while, he’d glance up and see these swirling masses of planes going around, as many as 24, in two groups. One red group from Millville and one blue group from Philadelphia. They would do mock dog fights over this area to practice going off to war.

“As he’s working on this tractor, he hears a long whine,””  Adkins added. “He was in Mantua and saw this plane go straight down. All he heard was a thud. There was no smoke, no flames, just a thump.”

Shortly after, Ballinger picked up Allen and the two drove to Main Street in Mullica Hill to see what had happened.

“There was a terrific scene,” Adkins continued. “A P-51 Mustang, as he described … landed right in the street, corkscrewed in at high speed. The exact spot was just north of the current firehouse, right straight into the line in the street where the (traffic) light is now. “As he described it, part of one of the wings flew through the old mill, the old barn that’s an antique store there now. The wing went through that wall and the other wing went uphill in Main Street and laid across the street. Most of the fuselage and the plane had buried itself in a hole that was 8 feet deep and the asphalt was blown away.”

Local police and fire units responded to the scene and put up barriers in the street. A short time later, an Army truck with three men arrived, along with an Army car carrying an officer and a detailed lieutenant.

“The officer jumped out and asked who’s in charge here?” Adkins stated. “Nobody stepped forward,  so he said, ‘It’s OK, I’m taking over the scene. I need your men to help me;  everyone else leave. We’re going to cordon off the scene and we’re going to start extracting the pilot.’

That was their main mission.

“On the back of the truck, they had a metal box,” Adkins continued. “It wasn’t a coffin, it was just a box with a lid on it like a toolbox. They explained they were going to try and retrieve the pilot’s body that was in that mess. They started digging with a pick and shovel and pulled parts of the plane out as they went. They just put the parts of the plane on the back of the truck.

“Duke said there really wasn’t that much,” Adkins added. “Not a lot of the plane came out of that hole. They just pulled the pieces off they could gather … and put them on the back of the truck. When they got down to the fuselage, the Army stepped in and the laborers, Duke, Herb and another six men, they stood aside and let them do their thing.”

The Army men retrieved what remained of the pilot’s body and put the remains into the metal box, according to the story. Allen described the mood to Adkins as very somber and asked the officer if he was able to retrieve all of the pilot’s body. The response was, “No, not all of him; it’s enough to bury him. We got enough.”

After the body was removed, Allen, Ballinger and the other six men were told to fill in the hole. Then the officer left them with an important message.

“(The officer) said, ‘I want to make this perfectly clear. This never happened. I don’t want anyone to speak of it again,’” Adkins said in concluding the story. “They went and got the mayor out of his house and he came down … So the city administrator came and the officer told him under no uncertain terms that no one was to speak of this accident. It didn’t happen and they would deny it if it was brought up.

“(The administrator) asked what was the importance of (the crash).” Adkins said. “(The officer) said, ‘You don’t need to know.’”

 

The search for evidence  

With Allen having passed away a short time after telling the story, Adkins hoped to hear from other residents who could confirm the tale. But he’s been unable to find another eyewitness.

“They didn’t have any knowledge of it at all,” Adkins said of asking other residents in the area who lived in that time period. “Not an inkling. I was never able to find a witness to it.”

After interviewing Adkins, The Sun reached out to local historical societies to see if any members recalled the story or if any records offered proof of the tale. Shortly after inquiring with the Harrison Township Historical Society, member Dee Grant identified herself as the cousin of Evelyn Wekke, Duke Allen’s daughter, and let her know about the tale.

In an email, Wekke, who now lives in Maryland, said she didn’t recall anything about a crash. She contacted a number of family members and Allen’s friends to ask them about the story, but no one remembered a crash similar to the story.

Stacy Constantino, assistant librarian at the Gloucester County Historical Society Library, conducted a records search for The Sun in the organization’s newspaper archives last week. The search turned up one plane crash during World War II in Mullica Hill, but the event did not fit the description of Adkins’ story. In fact it was a crash Adkins was already aware of, as it is one of two Mullica Hill airplane crashes the U.S. Army has in its records from World War II.

A newspaper article in The Philadelphia Inquirer details a plane crash that took place during World War II in Mullica Hill.

Earlier this year, Adkins came in contact with Craig Fuller, an aviation archaeologist based out of Arizona. Fuller runs Aviation Archaeological Investigation and Research, an organization dedicated to investigating military aircraft crash sites in the western U.S. Adkins read an interview with Fuller in a copy of Smithsonian Magazine late last year and decided to reach out to him.

In early February, Adkins received a bit of good news: Fuller had found two documented military plane crashes in Mullica Hill during World War II. But neither crash fit Allen’s story.

Mullica Hill’s confirmed World War II plane crashes

One of the crashes took place on Feb. 23, 1943. According to declassified U.S. Army documents, flight officer Edward J. Glowacki took off on an alert mission in the early evening. Flying in a formation, Glowacki discovered his engine was heating up after five minutes of flying. Several attempts to cool the engine failed and Glowacki told the flight leader he would have to return to Philadelphia Municipal Airport, today known as Philadelphia International Airport.

On the way back, Glowacki saw the temperature of his plane increase until it was over the red line of its gauge. Smoke began pouring out of the engine a short time later and the engine cut out. Glowacki picked out an empty field and safely made a belly landing. As soon as the ship hit the ground, it burst into flames and was completely destroyed. The pilot escaped unharmed.

That crash was also the one uncovered by the Gloucester County Historical Society during last week’s search. A brief article in the Feb. 24, 1943 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer details the crash, saying Glowacki landed the plane on a farm owned by Tony Patane  between Jefferson and Swedesboro. The article adds that the plane was completely destroyed before Mullica Hill firefighters could reach the scene.

The second crash found in the U.S. Army’s records took place on Nov. 20, 1942. Second Lt. Charles G. Franko was the pilot of the downed aircraft. According to a written statement, Franko took off on a gunnery mission that day with another lieutenant. The two planes did some target shooting at an undisclosed location before heading back to Philadelphia Municipal Airport.

About 10 miles from the airport, the engine of Franko’s plane sputtered and shut down, with blue smoke escaping from both engine banks. He was forced to land in a nearby field. The cause of the crash was later found to be the failure of a connecting rod in one of the engine banks.

Neither report fit the story Adkins heard from Allen many years ago, but he learned a number of crucial details. The reports are proof the Army flew numerous missions and training sessions over Mullica Hill during World War II. Adkins believes the Army did the targeting mission depicted in Franko’s story at a lake in Woodstown, but has been unable to verify the exact spot.

Adkins also believes Allen had the type of plane wrong in his story.  Allen said it was a P-51 Mustang, a famed aircraft used in some of the most crucial air campaigns of World War II. But both of the Army’s verified crashes involved P-40 Mustangs, and conversations with Fuller led Adkins to believe the plane in Allen’s story was likely a P-40.

The biggest thing Adkins noticed, however, was the status of the two pilots in the two reports. Both pilots in the confirmed crashes survived, while the pilot in Allen’s story did not.

The lack of evidence and eyewitnesses, combined with the alleged statement from the Army officer at the end of Allen’s story, leads Adkins to the conclusion that the entire event was covered up. He refuses to believe the story was made up, saying the seriousness in Allen’s tone as he told the story and the strong relationship the two former neighbors shared made the tale seem real.

With no documented proof and no eyewitnesses to back up the story, Adkins decided to go public through an interview with The Sun. He wanted this story to be published, in the hope a reader will see it and be able to confirm a nearly 80-year-old mystery.